Leicester

To the small knot of protesters outside the Peepul Centre, a new multimedia, multicultural performance space in Leicester, Tony Blair is already history. Chanting “Bush, Brown, CIA/How many kids did you kill today?” and waving signs describing Blair’s anointed successor as Gordon Brown, War Criminal, they, at least, have moved seamlessly into the new era.

The crowd inside seems less certain. A kaleidoscope of Hindus from Gujarat, Muslims from Bengal, Kashmir and Pakistan, Jains and Sikhs, the women in saris, shalwar kameez and cropped jeans, the men in dhotis, Nehru jackets and well-cut suits, they clap politely as the Emmanuel Gospel Choir sings “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” By the next census Leicester is expected to be the first British city with a nonwhite majority: The Diwali celebrations here are the largest outside India; Leicester’s Caribbean Carnival is the biggest in Britain after Notting Hill. An appropriate setting, then, for Labour’s first black, Asian and minority ethnic leadership debate. But with Brown now running unopposed for party leader, there won’t be much of a debate. The choir swings into “Oh Happy Day,” then stops abruptly. Apparently it’s too soon to celebrate. The Chancellor of the Exchequer hasn’t yet arrived. Like the rest of Britain, we are all waiting for Gordon Brown.

It’s been a long wait. Ever since Tony Blair’s impending departure was leaked to the Sun last September, Britain has been stuck in the political equivalent of sleep paralysis: The sensory organs are awake and registering distress while the body remains incapable of movement. The nightly news faithfully reports each new combat death in Iraq and Afghanistan. The government issues a White Paper favoring a massive expansion of nuclear power, and the Home Secretary proposes new antiterrorism laws giving police the right to stop and question any member of the public. Yet the predictable outcry–from environmental groups, civil liberties campaigners and British Muslims who already feel under siege–is muted by the sense that it’s all a charade, a faked flourish of power by an administration whose days are numbered.

Though national elections are still probably two years away, Labour has been trailing the Conservatives in the polls for months. Regional and local elections on May 3 were a very loud wake-up call: The party’s results in Wales were the worst in 100 years; in Scotland, Labour lost power for the first time in fifty years. And in council elections in England, Labour’s total was worse than at any time since Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. A week later Blair set a firm date for his exit: June 27 Gordon Brown will take over as both party leader and prime minister.

He inherits a party–and a country–transformed almost beyond recognition by the past ten years. Until Tony Blair, no Labour prime minister had ever served two consecutive terms, let alone three. “By having sustained progressive government, which changes the center of gravity in politics, you can build a very different country,” Ed Miliband, a Member of Parliament and key Brown adviser, recently told an audience at the London School of Economics. At the same event Neil Kinnock, who led the party to disastrous defeat in 1992, argued that for the first time in his life there were “widespread expectations of stable, durable affluence” in Britain.

Domestically, New Labour has always been better than its press–if not quite as good as its promises. British businessmen have learned to live with a minimum wage–at £5.35 ($10.50) an hour, more than double the US level and set to rise again in October. Giving fathers the right to take two weeks’ paid leave–mothers get nine months–did not slow economic growth. Unemployment has remained low, and huge sums of money have been spent on schools, hospitals and the National Health Service (NHS). Thanks to the Civil Partnership Act, same-sex couples have the same legal rights as heterosexuals. Devolution has seen the return of local government to London, an assembly for Wales and the first Scottish Parliament since the 1707 Act of Union. Not to mention the recently resurrected Northern Ireland Assembly, where in May Ian Paisley, the arch-rejectionist of Ulster Unionism, and Martin McGuinness, a former leader of the Provisional IRA, began a power-sharing partnership that could scarcely have been imagined ten years ago. Summing up the case for the defense, Miliband noted that “an agenda [built] around large tax cuts, not caring about the environment, discriminating against gays and lesbians and black people”–an only slightly skewed summary of successful Conservative platforms during the 1980s and ’90s–“now seems outlandish.”

But there have been disasters at home as well as abroad. Cutting Labour’s dependence on the unions meant Blair had to look elsewhere for party funding, and the rich businessmen whose company he found so congenial turned out to have agendas of their own. When, soon after taking office, it appeared that Formula One racing chief Bernie Ecclestone’s £1 million donation to Labour bought the sport an exemption from the new government’s ban on tobacco advertising, Blair was able to shrug off the damage. “Most people who have dealt with me think I’m a pretty straight sort of guy,” he told the BBC, offering to make public the names of all Labour donors. It was a promise that returned to haunt him late last year, when Blair became the first serving prime minister in British history to be questioned by police, who were investigating whether £14 million in secret loans to the party–made as loans precisely so the names of party donors, many of whom were later nominated for the House of Lords, didn’t have to be disclosed–amounted to the illegal “sale of honours.” Blair’s longtime tennis partner and personal envoy to the Middle East, Lord Levy (a former record company executive known as Lord Cashpoint for his success as a Labour fundraiser), was arrested in January, and though the steady drip of prosecution leaks seemed to stop once Blair announced his resignation, in early June it was reported that police now want a third interview with Blair–this time as a possible suspect.

Yet for all the taint of sleaze that has tarnished his final year in office, and despite all Blair’s electoral and governmental achievements, his epitaph can be written in one word: Iraq. It would take a Shakespeare to do justice to the man who, in the terrible days after 9/11, seemed to be able to speak not just for Britain but for the whole resolute, reasonable Western world. While George Bush hunkered in his Nebraska bunker and Dick Cheney fled to “an undisclosed location,” Blair promised that Britain would stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the United States in the coming fight. He even had the moral confidence to urge caution: “Don’t kill innocent people. We are not the ones who waged war on the innocent. We seek the guilty.” When he used the October 2001 Labour Party conference to assure Americans “We were with you at the first. We will stay with you to the last,” the hall echoed with cheers.

Iraq turned Blair from staunch ally to bloodstained accomplice, a Macbeth smeared with gore, whose latest defense of the charnel house that has engulfed Iraq was to ask us to trust him: “Hand on heart, I did what I thought was right.” As if that were even remotely possible, after the revelations of the “dodgy dossier” on Iraq’s alleged nuclear weapons, the secret agreement with Bush to invade while going through the motions of seeking UN approval, the fatally successful operation to discredit former UN weapons inspector Dr. David Kelly. Trust Blair? Recent months have seen not one but two plays, on stage and TV, showing Britain’s “pretty straight” prime minister on trial for war crimes.

Would Brown have been any better? In 2005, campaigning for a third term, Brown told an interviewer that Blair had made “the right decisions” on Iraq. The recognition that, in Brown’s words, “the relationship between a British prime minister and an American president must and should be a very strong one” is a fact of life for any British leader who wants his country to continue to punch above its weight internationally. Other options may exist. But Brown, who spent his honeymoon on Cape Cod, is even more instinctively pro-American than his predecessor. It is no accident that Brown’s signature program for helping the unemployed get back to work is called the New Deal, his early childhood education initiative dubbed Sure Start (like Head Start) or that Labour’s most redistributive measure, the Working Families Tax Credit, was inspired by the US Earned-Income Tax Credit (with much of the inspiration apparently coming via Miliband, who has a stint at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a Nation internship on his résumé).

Neither man has shown any awareness of the immense cost of ceding so much of Britain’s sovereignty to the United States: the festering wound at the center of political life caused by the war, and the pervasive sense of disenfranchisement and despair after a million people marched in the streets of London had no discernible effect on their government’s policy. There is no counterpart here to the US Democratic candidates’ debate on Iraq; no demand even to set a date for withdrawal. For the moment all three main parties seem to have agreed not to mention the war. Still, perhaps because for Brown the United States is not just the 900-pound gorilla of geopolitics but a real place, it is possible to imagine him less personally committed to George W. Bush, more willing to hear–and listen to–the voices of American dissent. Of course, that particular fantasy depends on there being significant opposition in the first place.

Meanwhile, back in Leicester, the candidate has finally arrived. Famously dour, today he seems elated, set free, like a widow who didn’t really like her husband very much. As the choir resumes “Oh Happy Day,” Brown lurches straight toward me, affable, grinning and seemingly intent on shaking my hand. It’s only afterward, listening to him tell party activists “there will be no retreat to the comfortable policies of the past” (i.e., to the left) and “we will win the next election on the center ground,” that I realize Brown couldn’t even see me. Thanks to a childhood rugby tackle that cost him the sight in one eye, Brown is blind on his left side.

However suspect as a metaphor for his politics (I’ve also heard him refer unabashedly to “our socialism, credible and radical”) Brown’s injury seems to have had a significant effect on his development, giving a solitary, bookish boy a good reason to retreat to the library. The son of a Church of Scotland minister, Brown was a child prodigy who began high school courses at 10 and at 16 entered Edinburgh University, where he edited the student newspaper and took a first in history. Brown stayed on to write a doctoral thesis on the Scottish Independent Labour Party, and apart from brief periods as a university lecturer and a TV journalist, he has spent his adult life as a politician. First elected to Parliament in 1983, the same year as Tony Blair, in opposition Brown displayed an unnerving knack for getting his hands on key government documents contradicting Conservative ministerial positions. Ever since a deal that saw him yield his own prime ministerial ambitions to Blair in the mid-1990s, Brown has been waiting, sometimes with all-too-visible impatience, for Blair to step aside.

Despite his close association with Blair, and his own role as an architect of New Labour’s drive toward the center ground, Brown has always had much stronger ties to the Labour grassroots. Activists and union members who backed Blair out of pure calculation speak of Brown with genuine affection. That no other candidate could muster enough support among Labour MPs to even get on the ballot for party leader is evidence of his strength inside a notoriously fractious party and would normally be an electoral plus. But these are not normal times, and Conservative party leader David Cameron, who at 40 is fifteen years younger than Brown, is no ordinary opponent.

Educated at Heatherdown (a prep school whose alumni include The Nation‘s Alexander Cockburn), Eton and Oxford and married to the daughter of a baronet, Cameron has nonetheless acquired the public persona of a “regular bloke,” a family man concerned about education and the environment who bicycles to Westminster and took paternity leave following the birth of his younger son. The lack of visible difference between the two parties on Iraq leaves Cameron free to cast himself as the real “heir to Blair”–a cocky young modernizer unfettered by ideology or history, temperamentally in tune with that electoral grail, “Middle England.”

Much of this is smoke and mirrors. Cameron’s one real attempt to pick a fight with his own party over his refusal to promise more grammar schools–state high schools for the brightest students with admissions based on a competitive exam at age 11, enormously popular with the Tory faithful, many of whom passed through them on their way to wealth and status–has become bogged down in trench warfare. And it was Cameron who ran Michael Howard’s 2005 campaign, with its relentless focus on immigration and demonization of asylum seekers. Yet Cameron’s attitudes on homosexuality, drugs, race and the environment seem to owe more to his cosmopolitan Notting Hill neighbors than to his party. He drives a hybrid car, recruited Ecologist editor and green campaigner Zac Goldsmith as a Conservative candidate and, until local planning officers forced him to remove it, had a windmill bolted to the roof of the family house. Yet what ultimately makes Cameron’s professed devotion to state education and the NHS plausible is a circumstance entirely beyond his choosing: His older son, now 5, was born with cerebral palsy and severe epilepsy. Not even David Cameron is rich enough to raise a handicapped child in Britain without relying on special schools and the health service. (Gordon Brown’s younger son was recently diagnosed with cystic fibrosis–a second blow to the family after their daughter, born prematurely in 2001, survived only a few days. But Labour politicians are expected to cherish the NHS.)

Ahead in the polls, Cameron merely has to convince voters that Brown is no better than he is. If he can outmaneuver Brown on one or two issues–the environment or civil liberties–disgust with Blair and weariness with Labour may do the rest. Brown’s task is more difficult. He has to win back the 4 million voters, and 200,000 members, Labour has lost since 1997. And here the absence of a contest for the leadership–which, though it could have embarrassed him, might also have raised his game–works against Brown. In Leicester the six candidates for deputy leader (a job with no constitutional role and just as much power as Brown chooses to delegate) managed an impressive list of ideas for reviving party fortunes, from a renewed commitment to build more public housing to the need for a forthright apology for the Iraq War. In a week when the Blairite Cabinet minister Margaret Hodge gave the fascist British National Party a bouquet by proposing that government pay more attention to the “legitimate sense of entitlement felt by [an] indigenous family” and less to the needs of new immigrants, their debate was refreshingly free of racist pandering. And the two candidates most identified with the party’s left–Hilary Benn, overseas aid minister and the son of veteran dissident Tony Benn, and John Cruddas, a backbench MP–quickly garnered the most support from party activists.

As a Scotsman, Brown faces one more obstacle, partly of his own making: For Brown, Scottish devolution was both a worthy cause and a useful stratagem for heading off total independence. Scottish votes keep Labour in power; without them the Tories would have an unassailable majority. The Tories, officially the “Conservative and Unionist Party,” are constitutionally opposed to independence. Yet no politician, including Brown, has ever come up with a satisfactory answer to what is known in Britain as the West Lothian Question–namely, why should a Scottish MP, representing a Scottish constituency, be allowed to vote on matters that, thanks to devolution, affect only England? The introduction of quasi-private foundation hospitals, for example, and university tuition fees–both rejected by the Scottish Parliament–were passed in Westminster with Scottish votes despite the opposition of a majority of English MPs. The May regional elections made Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond First Minister in Edinburgh. A shrewd operator often on Brown’s left–besides favoring independence, the SNP opposes the upgrading of Britain’s nuclear-armed Trident submarine fleet, which happens to be based in Scotland–Salmond is likely to make matters as awkward as possible for his fellow Scot.

In theory Gordon Brown, whose only electoral mandate comes from the 42,000 voters of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, is entitled to govern the United Kingdom until the spring of 2010. In practice Brown probably has about eighteen months to make his mark. Pundits suggest “a hundred days” designed to swiftly distinguish Brown from Blair–and put Cameron on the defensive. If Brown does decide to hit the ground running, the obvious areas are Iraq, education and the health service. Announcing a firm date for the withdrawal of British troops, for example, would be a decisive break–and would probably win him points with whichever Democrat succeeds Bush. Yet such a move would be almost as much a repudiation of his own record as an admission that using private contractors to build hospitals and renovate the London Underground was an expensive mistake.

It is often said by his critics that Brown belongs to a generation of Labour politicians who, traumatized by the defeats of the 1980s and ’90s, responded by concealing their true beliefs. It is certainly true that Brown and his circle know how to keep a secret. In 2005, when he announced an election-eve tax cut just big enough to completely discombobulate the Tories, not a hint leaked beforehand. It is just possible that Brown has kept his red underwear hidden all these years; it is equally possible, and perhaps more plausible, that his silence on Iraq, like his veneration of fiscal “Prudence” as a minor deity, betoken the soul not of a Bolshevik but of a bureaucrat. His defenders point to a decade of “redistribution by stealth” and his dedication to eradicating African debt; his detractors emphasize the stealth and note that Africa is a long way from Downing Street. It may be that the paradox of the left in power is that shifting the center ground to the left comes at the cost of a barbed-wire fence between the pragmatic and the utopian, putting genuinely radical solutions even further out of reach. At the moment nobody knows. But we are all waiting to find out.